MILCOM meetings project SFF surge, standardizedPC/104 packaging possibilities

Foot traffic was down at MILCOM 2013 in San Diego, perhaps due to reduced Department of Defense (DoD) travel budgets, or hard feelings about the lack of exhibitor refunds following the cancellation of MILCOM 2012, or both. However, low foot traffic doesn’t necessarily translate to a bad show, and several exhibitors noted several productive client meetings.

For the press, low attendance is a boon as it affords the opportunity to interact with as many merchants as possible; during my time on the show I encountered a number of vendors displaying Small Form Factor (SFF) alternatives to backplane-based systems. As the government shifts to smaller, lower-cost electronics, Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) SFFs are primed for an expanded role in military deployments, evident in exhibitions like the harsh-environment PCIe/104 and COM Express boards from Orion Technologies in Orlando, FL (www.oriontechnologies.com), Massachusetts-based SIE Computing Solutions’ (www.sie-cs.com) ruggedized SFF subsystems, and a PCIe/104-based modular mission computer from Elma Electronic in Fremont, CA (www.elma.com) to name just a few (Figure 1).

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Figure 1: Elma Electronic’s F-Series PCIe/104 Platform provides an example of possible packaging options for Small Form Factor (SFF) boards.
(Click graphic to zoom by 1.9x)

The latter exhibition interested me the most perhaps in that Elma Electronic’s move into packaging for SFF boards is a fairly recent one. Flemming Christensen, Managing Director, Sundance Multiprocessor Technology in Buckinghamshire, UK (www.sundance.com) was also intrigued by the possibilities, as the notion of “standardized packaging” for PC/104 could move the ecosystem from a strictly board focus into a system-level arena.

“PC/104 vendors have been selling boards like distributors sell components to us: we ship them, we wrap them, but we don’t actually consider how they are going to be used next,” Christensen says. “That is what we need to think – that these boards are going to need a home.

“Historically, PC/104 has been sold as a board only, and customers would typically buy it from a single source,” Christensen says. “Typical systems were three to four boards due to the limitations of sharing the PC/104 bus. Packaging was typically provided by either the original vendor or was home grown to suit the customer’s environmental requirements.

“The introduction of high-speed PCI Express has enabled PC/104 to enter the typical marketplace of CompactPCI, VPX, and others that are backplane- and bus-based,” Christensen says. “The biggest problem for [Sundance] is that we can’t be compatible with the RTDs, and the VersaLogics, and the ADLs, because then we have to go and actually engineer enclosure, and our boards to match their boards. But, if the approach is to look at every PC/104 board as not just a board but like a blade and add them up as you go along, then individually the manufacturers – whether they are the CPU manufacturers or the DSP manufacturers or the FPGA manufacturers, whoever – would have to conform to that standard, or it could be an optional, extra standard enclosure. That would be ideal because it would max the stackability, give a way of making it compatible between different vendors, and it would bring the cost down.

“The advantage of a ‘stackable’ bus is that it will allow small, commercial-grade enclosures to be designed – maybe even printed in plastic with a 3D printer – whereas industrial-grade [enclosures] would be in metal of some sort, and the super enclosures in better metal,” Christensen says. “If they were identical in form and shape, then prototypes could be started in plastic and move forward with metal for the final solution. Some systems could be IP4x and others IP68, and so on. This would allow customers to shop around and know mechanically it will work and electronically it will work, and they just have to do the various software – which is how it is in PXI, VME, and CompactPCI. It would enhance the flexibility of what I believe is a very flexible way of building systems, and I believe that PC/104 is in a position to take a larger market share of SFF systems with a common way of packaging the boards into stacks that become systems.”

Although turnkey suppliers of PC/104 systems stand to take a loss from standardized packaging, the concept could yield deeper penetration of PC/104 technology into applications that have traditionally relied on bladed systems. Perhaps this warrants a deeper look from the Consortium.

For more ideas on standardized PC/104 packaging, you can contact Flemming at flemming.c@sundance.com.

Brandon Lewis, Asst. Managing Editor

blewis@opensystemsmedia.com